CPAP Therapy - Continuous Positive Airway Pressure

The most common treatment for sleep apnea is CPAP, or Continuous Positive Airway Pressure therapy.

A CPAP machine is usually about the size of a shoebox but CAN be smaller. A flexible tube connects the machine with a mask or other interface device that is worn over the nose and/or mouth. CPAP works by pushing air through the airway passage at a pressure high enough to prevent apneas and can be prescribed for both obstructive and central sleep apnea. The pressure is set according to the patient's sleep apnea.

The CPAP machine will have one of the following:

  • A mask that covers your nose and mouth
  • A mask that covers your nose only-called nasal continuous positive airway pressure, or NCPAP (this type of mask is most common)
  • Prongs that fit into your nose
CPAP is the most effective nonsurgical treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. It is the first treatment choice and the most widely used.

Because CPAP is a medical device, all CPAP units must have Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval before they can be sold. For the same reason, you must have a physician's prescription in order to obtain a CPAP. (In this publication, "CPAP," considered a generic term and not a brand name, can refer to any positive pressure device.)

There are several CPAP manufacturers that offer different types of machines with different features. Once you have been diagnosed with sleep apnea and have been prescribed CPAP therapy, you may be able to choose one machine among the many offered.

A CPAP, typically covered by insurance as a durable medical equipment benefit, is most often rented or purchased through a home health care company, also known as a durable medical equipment company. CPAPs may also be purchased over the Internet. However, before buying a machine, it is generally a good idea to rent one first (on a rent-to-own plan if possible) for several weeks to make sure that the machine has all the features you need, and to determine if CPAP is working as it should.

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